After a disappointing campaign in 2012 that saw Utah football miss out on a bowl game for the first time under coach Kyle Whittingham, the Utes enter the 2013 season with a resolve to return to their winning ways.
Utah has solidified depth and talent across several key positions, such as quarterback and offensive line, but several questions remain on both sides of the football. With the start of practices just days away, today we break down the top 10 position battles to watch as the Utes enter fall camp.
Dan Sorensen is the Editor in Chief of UteZone.com, part of the Rivals.com network. He is a member of the Football Writers Association of America and Basketball Writers Association of America. Dan can be reached at email@example.com or on Twitter at @DSorensen.
After losing its top three corners from last season to graduation, Utah’s cornerback position is completely up in the air this fall. Senior Keith McGill and redshirt freshman Justin Thomas are listed as starters heading into fall, and both players were Utah’s most consistent corners this spring. However, a host of other players, including redshirt freshman Reginald Porter, junior college transfer Davion Orphey, junior Wykie Freeman and true freshman Hipolito Corporan, will push for reps as well.
McGill and Thomas are expected to hang on to the starting spots, but Ute fans should keep a close eye on Freeman, who is Utah’s fastest corner and is finally healthy after missing all of spring football.
After a solid spring, sophomore Travis Wilson looks to have strengthened his hold on the starting spot, but the battle for the No. 2 spot looks to be competitive. Sophomore Adam Schultz has the biggest arm on the team and made strides this spring. However, Schultz will be pushed by true freshman Brandon Cox, who was among the most pleasant surprises of spring football before his camp was cut short by an injury.
True freshmen Conner Manning and Micah Thomas are also looking to be in the mix. Both participated in summer conditioning and will compete for the job but will have to impress to overcome Schultz and Cox.
With Jeremiah Poutasi moving to left tackle this season, Utah is looking for a permanent replacement on the right side of the line. Siaosi Aiono won the job in spring camp but will have to hold off 6-foot-7-inch junior college transfer Andrew Albers for the right to protect the edge.
Junior Marc Pouvave could be the X factor in this battle. Pouvave is finally ready to compete after missing a year due to a ruptured Achilles tendon and could potentially play on the right side of the line with Poutasi locking down the left.
Senior Tenny Palepoi has one of Utah’s two defensive tackle spots locked up, but the other spot is up for grabs. If oft-injured senior LT Tuipulotu can stay healthy, he should have an inside track on the job. However, junior college transfer Sese Ianu has been on campus all summer and is expected to make an impact once practices start. Utah fans should also keep an eye on Stevie Tu’ikolovatu. The redshirt freshman was one of the more impressive defensive linemen in spring camp, and he should see plenty of reps this fall as well.
Junior V.J. Fehoko made big strides this spring, but is still being pushed by sophomore LT Filiaga for the starting spot. After coming on strong near the end of last season, Fehoko has begun to take on more of a leadership role on the Utah defense and hopes to have a prominent role in the defense this fall. Filiaga is currently listed as a co-starter at both middle linebacker and rover and will push to see the field at either position.
True freshman Uaea Masina is another young, yet promising, player to watch. Masina participated in spring football and showed promise. He’ll be in the mix but will need a big fall camp to earn significant reps during the season.
Placekicker has been inconsistent during the past two years, and special teams coordinator Jay Hill is eager to find someone who can right the ship. Sophomore Andy Phillips emerged from spring camp as the starter, but redshirt freshman Jamie Sutcliffe is right on his heels. Neither kicker was terribly consistent during spring football, so Ute fans can expect this battle to continue throughout most of camp.
Whittingham has said in recent weeks the Utah defense will spend a lot of time in the nickel package this fall. Senior Michael Walker and junior Joseph Smith are the two players battling for reps once the Utes bring a third cornerback onto the field. Walker has the most experience, playing mostly as a backup safety with two starts under his belt, but Smith was a consistent performer in spring camp.
The running back position is wide open, as eight players will fight to replace departed senior John White. Senior Kelvin York is the most experienced of the returning players, but James Poole, Lucky Radley and Karl Williams all had better springs. True freshmen Dre’Vian Young, Troy McCormick and Marcus Williams will also compete for playing time. All three freshmen have elite speed, and Ute fans shouldn’t be surprised if one or more contribute this fall.
Kenneth Scott and Dres Anderson have a lock on two of the three starting spots at wide receiver for the Utes. The third spot, however, is up for grabs, with senior Anthony Denham and redshirt freshman Delshawn McClellon battling for reps. The two receivers couldn’t be more different in style. Denham is a big, physical receiver who is able to move the chains, while McClellon is small, fast and a big play threat once he gets the ball in space. McClellon made a big splash during the spring game, and now it’s time to see if he can replicate his performance in games that count.
The Utes still have several questions surrounding the defensive end position. Trevor Reilly and Nate Orchard are expected to start, and both are capable of being big contributors. However, both were held out of spring football due to injury and will need to prove they can stay healthy.
Jason Whittingham is listed as a co-starter at both end positions heading into camp and will push Reilly and Orchard for reps. Senior Thretton Palamo is a workout wonder who will have one last year to prove he can make the transition from rugby to football. Hunter Dimick made waves as a sack specialist in high school and will finally get his shot to show what he can do at the next level after redshirting last season.